What your updates say about you

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2012, 12:00am


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Social media is great for deepening bonds, making friends, or finding that special someone. Or is it?

Facebook use is more rampant in Hong Kong than anywhere else on the planet. A BlogHer/Ketchum survey last year found that 92 per cent of those polled log in at least once a week. Yet new research suggests that so-called power users, who contribute much more content than the average Facebook user, are unwittingly revealing undesirable personal traits to their peers.

The recent study also suggests that Facebook is not good for those suffering from low self-esteem.

'We had this idea that Facebook could be a fantastic place for people to strengthen their relationships,' says Amanda Forest of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

This assumption seems fair when applied to most people, especially those with low self-esteem. However, the findings of Forest's research - titled 'When Social Networking is Not Working' - suggest that isn't so.

A control group's last 10 status updates were rated for positivity or negativity, with an anonymous coder - also a regular Facebook user - recording whether they liked or disliked the author. The results revealed that people with low self-esteem were more negative and less likeable, but got more responses from their Facebook friends when they posted positive comments. Conversely, those with high self-esteem used Facebook less, and got more comments and 'like' replies after posting something negative.

Facebook might seem a risk-free forum to vent frustrations, but it's hard to gauge readers' reactions.

'If you're talking to somebody in person, you might get an indication that they don't like it,' says Forest. 'On Facebook, you don't see most of the reactions.'

We all know someone who's always on Facebook, always has something to say, yet rarely goes out. Most users are passive, happy to peruse - and pass judgment on - others' status updates with few regularly commenting or contributing. A study by the Pew Research Centre's Internet and American Life Project, which combined server logs of Facebook activity over a month with survey data to investigate the structure of friendship networks, offers a reason for Facebook's popularity: most get more out of it than they put into it.

Based on the behaviour of 2,255 adults, the study showed inequalities - 40 per cent made a friend request on Facebook, but 63 per cent received one, each sent nine personal messages and received 12, and 12 per cent tagged friends in photos yet were tagged in almost three times as many.

'Most Facebook users are moderately active over a one-month time period, so highly active power users skew the average. Power users make up between a fifth and a third of users, though the people involved change according to the activity,' says Professor Keith Hampton of Rutgers University in New Jersey, lead author of 'Why Most Facebook Users Get More Than They Give'.

Some are addicted to the 'like' button, and others constantly update their status or obsess about adding friends. Speaking of which, those of a narcissistic bent will want to know the average number of friends a regular Facebooker reaches. The Pew study found it to be 245 in the US, though the subject's friends had an average of 359 friends. A paradox?

'This actually mirrors what happens in friendship networks outside Facebook,' says Hampton, explaining that a small number of people are isolated, so they do not appear in most people's networks. Popular people appear repeatedly.

Is Facebook about popularity or desperation? It may often edge towards the latter, with evidence that Facebook is as addictive as cigarettes, alcohol and even sex. A study of the activities and desires of 200 adults by the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business showed that although the strongest desires were for sleep and sex, checking work e-mails and updating a Facebook status are this generation's actual nocturnal activities.

With the percentage of Hongkongers who own smartphones twice the global average, it seems we can't get away from the trend. Technology may be constantly progressing and refining, but social status, it seems, is more important than ever.